Are the Wild Cards Now a Trap?

Over the weekend, Vince Gennaro — president of SABR, author of Diamond Dollars, and friend of FanGraphs — launched his own blog. For his first post, he talked about the second wild card and it’s effect on the upcoming trade deadline. In that post, he said some of the things that I’ve been thinking lately, so instead of just repeating those ideas, I’ll quote him instead:

What are the implications for trade deadline deals? Since we know the real financial payoff for a team’s performance results from a run through the postseason—the deeper the run, the richer the pot of gold—teams will need to shift their mindset to not treat all postseason qualifying positions as “equal”. In the new system, it may make more sense to fortify your ballclub when your playoff status is assured, but being anointed a division winner is still in question—think Texas or even the Angels. However, a team fighting for a wild card berth should think twice before they go all-in for the privilege of potentially extending their season for one more day. This is the exact opposite of the old mindset—do everything you can to qualify for the playoffs, but don’t worry too much about winning the division.

Vince is right about the incentives of the old system, as there was no real incentive to try and secure a different seed within the playoff structure. If you were in, you were in, and your goal should have been to just get in. But, now, the addition of the second wild card changes everything. In reality, it’s the play-in game that is really the differentiator here, as the new structure created a vast separation between winning your division and finishing as a strong runner up. As Jesse noted last week, the playoff probability curves have shifted, and the incentives on when to be a trade deadline buyer have to shift as well.

There are now twice as many wild cards, but they are less than half as valuable as they used to be, as they only guarantee a ~50-50 shot at a real playoff spot, and, in order to secure that playoff spot, the team will likely have to burn through their pitching staff in order to win the one game playoff. Rather than entering the division series on even footing, the wild card may now very well be without their best starting pitcher until Game 3 or Game 4. Not only does a wild card entry no longer get you any guaranteed home playoff dates, it increases the likelihood that the wild card will be losing in the first round.

These are good changes that I’m in favor of, but the devaluation of the wild card may have some unintended consequences at the trade deadline, as Vince noted in his post.

For instance, the recent surge by the Oakland Athletics has left them just a half game behind the Angels and tied with the Orioles in the wild card standings. Under the old system, the A’s and O’s should probably have both acted as buyers. While they’re not as good as the Angels in terms of true talent, they’re close enough to that first wild card spot that there’s a realistic chance that they could outplay Anaheim over the final two months of the season and steal a lucrative playoff spot that could re-energize their fan base and create significant revenue gains. However, under the new system, both teams should probably resist the urge to give up prospects for rentals, as the reward for running down the Angels (or even just maintaining their current spot in the standings) is likely a one game, winner-take-all affair against Jered Weaver in Anaheim.

Yeah, they could beat him, but how much of your farm system do you want to bet on coming out victorious against Weaver on the road, especially when you’re pretty sure that the Angels roster is still stronger than yours even without factoring in the pitching match-up? The outcome of any one game is unpredictable enough that they shouldn’t just fold up their tents and give up, but trading good prospects for the right to try and win one game as an underdog on the road against one of the best pitchers in baseball just seems like a poor use of value.

It was one thing to trade a prospect for a guy who gave you a 10% chance at getting to the World Series, where the potential return could dramatically alter the trajectory of a franchise. But, now, with the required play-in game, teams that are hanging out in the wild card race but probably aren’t contenders for the division title should probably hold instead of buy. The play-in game is enough of a carrot to keep teams from repeating the White Flag Trade, but it shouldn’t be enough of a carrot to get teams to give up real long term value to chase a wild card spot.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this coin as well. Since the division title is so much more valuable than a wild card berth, teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis should be far more incentivized to win the central divisions than they were in prior years, when a second place finish could still get them into the playoffs as a wild card. Likewise, the Washington Nationals should probably be more aggressive buyers this year than they would have been last year, as they can’t afford to let the Braves pass them in the NL East race.

The changing marginal values of wins 87-97 have made it so that first place teams should be more active this week, while second place teams should probably be a bit less active unless they’re close to the top of their division.

It will be interesting to see which teams are aggressive in adding talent. It probably won’t be the same ones that would have been active in prior years.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


55 Responses to “Are the Wild Cards Now a Trap?”

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  1. Admiral Ackbar says:

    Yes.

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  2. st says:

    totally agree. this is turning into it’s own bubble

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  3. Slim Jim says:

    Is there a bump in next year’s attendence/revenue for playoff teams? For teams that haven’t made the playoffs in ages – Baltimore is one that comes to mind. I would think that would be an increase in revenue for making the playoffs this year even if they don’t end up getting a home playoff game.

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    • Eric R says:

      Well it’s not like there is some guaranteed amount– fans could decide that finishing 1 win from the second wildcard means about as much as winning that second wildcard and losing in the 1-game play-off…

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    • rageon says:

      I think this is the latest in the season I’ve still been interested in the Oakland A’s for about 5 years. I’m not sure how good of a proxy my own MLB.tv consumption is for overall revenue, but I would have to think I’m not the only one paying attention for a first time in a while, and also that at least some of those people are probably going to buy tickets. Even if playoffs are the real pot of gold, there has to be some real value to a team being “competetive” for the first time in a few years, during both the current season and into the next.

      So the new wild card maintains interest in more teams without devaluing the regular season for division winners? I’m conflicted, I’m so conditioned to assuming MLB’s decisions are wrong that I’m not sure how to go about possibly agreeing with this one.

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      • everdiso says:

        exactly.

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      • baty says:

        Well, there’s no way of knowing, because if the season ended today, Oakland would be trying to win the 163rd game in order to get a chance to win the WC playoff, so they can compete in the Divisional Series. If I were an Oakland fan, I’d be pretty excited…

        If I were an Angels fan, I’d be ticked that my team had to deal with all of that garbage, instead of simply playing in the Divisional Playoff Series as it used to be.

        Oakland would be a 3rd place team, out of a 4 team division, determined through the unbalanced regular season schedule, and STILL with a legitimate chance to compete in the Divisional Playoff Series.

        Pretty screwed up if you ask me…

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      • baty says:

        If I were a Rays fan, I’d probably be furious, knowing that “my team” finished 3rd in a division as well, but fell a bit short of the 5th wild card spot in the division that saw no one finish below .500 through an unbalanced schedule.

        How can you say that this doesn’t devalue the regular season?

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  4. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Well said, I’ve had assorted meanderings on this topic, but this is nice and eloquent.

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  5. everdiso says:

    They might be a trap if you consider having a good farm system more important than making the playoffs, I guess.

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    • Eric R says:

      I think the point is more that having a good farm system sets you up for several years off play-off contention, while draining the system for a one-game play-off probably hurts you long-term.

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      • everdiso says:

        well, there’s a balance to be had there for sure, but having half the teams in the league fighting for a playoff spot until the end of the year is much better than having 9 or 10 of them concede in July, IMO. Both for the leagues, and the teams themselves….even if it costs them some prospects and they don’t end up winning the WS.

        Remember, the wild card isn’t just about that one game playoff….it’s about being in contention all through september instead of playing out the string. A september playoff race is probaby as valuable as an extended playoff run anyways, for many teams.

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      • Jack ss says:

        how is that different than before.

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      • everdiso says:

        well, that brings up a different point of contention with the article, I guess.

        Do we really think that teams like Oakland and Baltimore will decide not to be buyers because they don’t think they can track down the 1st place clubs? IMO, it’s clear that any team in the wild card race will have to act as buyers just to hope to stay ahead of the rest of the pack of WC contenders. If Oakland and Baltimore actually look at the situation and think to themselves “well, we don’t really need to buy because we’re already tied for a WC spot and can’t catch the top seed” wouldn’t that be, well, really stupid? They should be buying just because their WC spot is so unassured.

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      • Tom B says:

        This seems like a bad way to run a team regardless of the wildcard situation. This article in general wreaks more of “don’t trade away the farm for a one shot win” than it does anything to do with the new wild card.

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      • everdiso says:

        I also don’t like conflating “being a buyer” with “trading the farm”.

        You can trade prospects to improve your team, without trading the farm.

        And remember, most prospects – even the best ones – bust.

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    • Eric R says:

      Maybe in the early 90s, the Yankees should have traded Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera for some veteran talent to help get them to the top of their division…

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    • Paul says:

      Agreed. Many of the comments and most of the article are just filled with false assumptions, like the value of prospects. Or that making the playoffs might not actually matter to some fan bases. Hey, if some team’s GM knows his fanbase doesn’t give a damn, he won’t be a buyer. But that’s basically Tampa, right?

      I completely disagree with the logic that an extra playoff spot decreases the value of the wild card. There is not some pie that playoff teams divvy up, so now that you add two teams each gets less. And it’s therefore also not the case that the two play-in teams would only get slivers. Each market is going to determine how aggressive each GM should be. If they want to sell more merch, get a better TV contract, sell more season tickets, etc., “trading the farm” for a playoff appearance is just a no-brainer.

      Additionally, the assumption that a good farm system sets a team up for multiple years of playoff runs is just not true. The Yankees farm system was horrible for a very long time, Detroit famously sells their prospects at every opportunity and will do so again this year. White Sox. Angels. All have produced some great players, none have been hailed as great farm systems for quite some time. All have spent big money on Type A free agents that cost them draft picks.

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      • The reason those teams have poor farm systems is because the odds of finding good players in the back third of the first round of the draft is pretty low odds, around 10% based on my research back a while ago. Meanwhile, it is about 4 times better if you have a Top 5 overall pick. What that roughly means that that you can find a difference maker with your first round pick once every 7-10 years when you are contending, about once every 2-3 years when you have a top 5 pick overall. And the odds just get exponentially worse after that.

        Teams cannot adequately replenish their farm system just selecting in the draft where they are. Even with tactics such as selecting signability players like Detroit and NY do regularly, and aggressively pursuing international free agents won’t do it, it can’t make up for the exponential difference in odds between the Top 5 picks and the picks you get when you are contending for the playoffs. If you need help as these teams do, you need to sign free agents plus select well enough in the drafts to lure a rebuilding team to give up their developed player for your birds in the bush.

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      • Bob says:

        I highly doubt that having a top 5 pick means you have a 40% chance of selecting a good MLB player. If that were the case, perrenial also-rans like Pittsburgh should be overflowing with good players. And yet, they aren’t.

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      • Paul says:

        I would love to see that analysis, because your summary of it must not do it justice.

        On cue, the Tigers trade Turner to Miami. And no, their draft position has had nothing to do with their farm system being depleted, it’s the constant trading of prospects. Nick Castellanos was not only not drafted at the end of round 1, he was a supplemental first rounder.

        In the year the Royals drafted a setup man 9th overall, they took the current best hitting prospect in that same draft in round 3. The Yankees have had plenty of opportunities at the end of the draft and chose not to spend money there, giving lots of over slot deals to guys like Daniel Robertson and Tyler Austin in the middle rounds instead.

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      • jdm says:

        To claim that prospects aren’t as valuable and teams cannot set themselves up for multiple years you are only accounting for evidence in your favor. If your a team like the Yankees or the Tigers who can afford to spend a fortune in free agency to acquire some of the top talent then you can afford to trade away prospects. For those teams who aren’t as fortunate, the GM has to manage for the long-term.

        Look at all the talent surrounding the Rays that they have internally developed. The Rays spent less than a third of what the Yankees did and still assembled a very competitive team.

        Look at all the trades the Oakland A’s have cut that brought in talent and are starting to payoff:

        Dan Haren and Connor Robertson for Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Aaron Cunningham, Greg Smith, Dana Eveland, Chris Carter

        Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow for Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill

        Gio Gonzalez for Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Derek Norris

        Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney for Josh Reddick, Miles Head, Raul Alcantara

        Now obviously not all of these prospects have come to fruition and produced as many have pointed out, but this surrounding cast from a small market team built internally is competing for a playoff spot in the AL. It would be ignorant to dismiss the option of selling a veteran (Colon, Balfour possibly) to try and maintain what has been the foundation of the team (identifying talented prospects) and try and compete for the next couple of years while maintaining one of the lowest payrolls in the league.

        While Oakland could be sellers, obviously the opportunity to compete for a playoff berth would energize the fanbase and generate revenues which is why they could also very plausibly be buyers, but I think claiming that selling talented players for prospects is overrated is quite a myopic opinion.

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  6. Matt says:

    I agree with the premise of the article, but with as close as the race is it realistic to assume the Angels clinch and are able to set up the pitching staff for the one game playoff? But it’s still giving up real prospects for at best a 50/50 shot at making the real playoffs (entering shorthanded at that)

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  7. ALEastbound says:

    It will be intriguing to see how this plays out and how teams adjust.

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  8. zkolodin says:

    I am really not sure about this. It seems to me like expected value is the appropriate analysis for teams to decide whether to make big trades or not.

    Taking your situation above, let’s say the Angels, Orioles, and A’s are in competition for a playoff spot and each has a 33% chance of making the playoffs (hypothetically).

    Under the old system, a trade that would improve their odds of finishing first among the three to 40%, second to 40%, and reduces third to 20% would have resulted in a 7% improvement in the probability of reaching the ALDS.

    Under the new system, a trade that would improve their odds of finishing first among the three to 40%, second to 40%, and reduces third to 20% results in a 14% improvement in the likelihood of making the play-in game: (40+40)-(33+33)=24. Assuming a 50% chance of winning the play-in game, that nets a 7% improvement in the probability of advancing to the ALDS.

    So, I don’t think it’s at all clear that the odds of advancing to the ALDS are worse. And I do think that the play-in game must have SOME value, which would add to the incentive of qualifying for it. For your analysis to be right, I think you have to believe that the odds of winning the play-in game are so in favor of your potential opponents that the inherent value of the play-in itself is outweighed. I don’t think that’s likely at all.

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    • jdm says:

      According to your analysis, either way this “trade” would net in a 7% increased chance to reach the ALDS but you can’t consider these independent events. Each team has an opening day starter, and four others ranked behind it in the order of their effectiveness. If you need to use your ace to win to get the second wild card/one game playoff, that team is already at a significant disadvantage when trying to advance anywhere past the ALDS/NLDS. For example, in the AL East all four teams are can plausibly get a wild card spot, but knowing that they will have to go into the Bronx or Arlington (most likely) and try to shut down an excellent offense without their top end starter puts the wild card teams at a significant disadvantage (and not as likely to be buyers).

      Additionally, going on the point that their are not necessarily more buyers since chasing either wild card spot might be futile, I think (might be wrong) the new CBA agreement changed so teams who trade for and lose rentals do not get compensatory selections as they used to, which makes it even less appealing to trade for a rental knowing that you’ll have to offer young talent without being able to replace it as well as they used to be able to.

      Also,comparing against other professional sports, in the NFL there are only 16 regular season games and a few lucky/unlucky calls can swing a couple of games which could make or break a season makes it more logical to have multiple wild cards. But in the case of the MLB with an exceptionally large sample size of 162 games I think that the fifth wild card spot does not bring much to the table and should be reconsidered and either expanded to 6 teams (to reward the top teams and not punish the wild card teams) or it should be limited to 4 since the top teams should make themselves evident over the course of 162 games.

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      • Paul says:

        I actually think that we are already in a period of re-evaluating the value of prospects. Not that having a great farm system is not going to be valued. We already saw that the pundits were pitifully wrong about the CBA’s effect on both the draft and internationally signings. It turned out that without hard slotting, players always knew there was a good chance they could get more money later based solely on previous performance and a couple teams really liking them. No more, it’s all about maximizing dollars, because they are limited.

        It’s the opposite effect with regard to playoff spots. Not only does the opportunity to win now diminish the value of prospects, the win now mentality also diminishes the notion of stocking your farm system for multiple year runs. With two additional spots, more incentive to win now and more probability of parity in playoff teams. If there is more parity and it’s going to be harder for you to reach the playoffs year in and year out, great farm system or not, why wouldn’t you be going for it?

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      • baty says:

        Paul, you’re making it sound like great prospects come and go too simply. For most organizations, having a relatively deep pool is the only way to build a financial basis for winning, and some need a more continuous flow of good prospects than others to avoid breaking. The key is that way before being able to trade away prospect pieces for playoff runs, you need to already have past prospects you decided to keep, producing very well.

        If you’re lucky you’ll have that, THEN based on the money you speculate saving from having a hopeful Cain, Lincecum, and Bumgarner prospect infusion, you get to start wheeling and dealing with what you see as more expendable. Every team relies on the cost control of solid emerging prospects for sustainability and growth. All organizations have to keep pumping these guys into the active roster no matter how good or bad they are. Every playoff contender in the history of modern baseball has won because of how they created financial space with those “invaluable” players and their insane WAR/$ rates. You can’t get too careless with how you deal these guys away.

        During their playoff run, there are certain pieces that the Pirates have to keep in order to continue being competitive, because they MOST LIKELY won’t get enough long term value to their organization in return.

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  9. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Agreed. I prefer the two-wildcard system to the single-wildcard system, with the wildcard as a necessary evil of minimal value. But I fear that weak, incompetent franchises will more easily fall into the trap, thereby becoming weaker, and undermining competitive balance. To be sure, stupid is as stupid does, but why tempt them?

    Perhaps a superior solution, if we assume that reverting to the pre-1994 system is a non-starter, is to have four divisions per league and no wildcard. And that brings me to another problem with the new system: it may be impossible now to reduce the number of playoff spots, making the four-division no-wildcard system impossible.

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    • Cidron says:

      more games = more money. The chances of reducing the number of playoff games is very unlikely. Almost as likely as the chances of the classic doubleheader (buy one ticket, sit for two games back to back – not separated by a few hours to maximize ticket sales).

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  10. JayTeam says:

    The Jays_Astros trade also brings up another aspect. The Jays acquisitions won’t help them grab the division crown at all, and only marginally help them win a wild card berth. What it will do is help keep them in the race. Merely staying in the race will allow their attendance boost this year to continue longer, as well as their TV ratings; important for ownership since the parent company owns both the team and the broadcast rights.

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  11. jj says:

    I think the value of keeping a team in the race as long as possible (read: making more September games ‘meaningful’) is where the real revenue will come from. If there is only 1 WC and that team is 5 – 10 games in front there are a lot of teams playing games in september that are meaningless. If 3 or 4 teams are close to that second place spot there are quite a few money generating games happening on any given day. If the MLB can keep some fringe teams in the playoffs for a week longer that brings a fair amount of revenue into those teams even if they don’t make the playoffs. So I don’t think doing an analysis of odds of winning it all is correct here, I think analyzing how much added interest a team can gain by portraying itself a buyer and bringing more hope to the fanbase for a longer time is what should be done.

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  12. Oliver says:

    It seems like this is going to cut pretty deep, and cause some pretty serious inflationary pressure. So many more teams are in contention, driving up the price of a pitcher like Ryan Dempster (since the Cubs are one of like 5 teams not “in it”) to the point that they might get Randall Delgado back, if the rumors are to believed. That’s a pretty good chip for a rental.

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  13. Corey says:

    I wonder if the incentive is instead to trade for arms rather than bats. Acquiring a top hitter doesn’t help that much in a 1 game playoff against Weaver or Verlander or Kershaw or Price, but acquiring a Greinke or a Lee or a Hamels might help a lot, particularly since it might allow your current ace to pitch, the new ace to pitch, or give you a leg up on the other wildcard who used their ace the day before just to get there. Seems to me like it inflates the value of ace starting pitchers while deflating the value of deadline bats.

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  14. mdecav says:

    Whose (or “Who is”?) to say Weaver would pitch for Anaheim in that one game playoff? Maybe the Angels will need him to start game 162…

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    • Cidron says:

      ok.. Everything on the line for them. Maybe even moreso given their expectations. Who are YOU (as manager) gonna trot out there? Ervin Santana?

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      • Simon says:

        Obviously, the best available starter, but if game 162 is an elimination game, they may have to use Weaver for that. In which case, they would presumably go with either Haren or Wilson for the wild card game.

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  15. Average_Casey says:

    I think it would really depend on the team that could be contending. If you’re the Rays, I would be willing to bet on Price to beat Weaver, despite the difference in offense. Same thing if the Mariners were in it, I would bet on Felix any day over any lineup. So I think that as a whole it may be a trap but if you have a true ace, then it’s not really.

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  16. baty says:

    It’s certainly a trap for some, depending on how your team is built. For the handful of teams competing to get into the Wild Card playoff, it’s basically a flip of the coin for a chance to advance and use your full team in the Divisional Playoff Series.

    It will be unfortunate to see the game won by a “star performance” or any way other than the regular season legitimacy of “greater team play”, whatever that means…

    It puts a team like the Pirates in a tough position, when your pitching staff isn’t built to compete as favorably for a 1 game playoff, and it puts a team like the Dodgers in more secure territory knowing Clayton Kershaw is there. You might as well bench Pedro Alvarez for that one, haha.

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    • gonfalon says:

      Perhaps, but the Pirates are currently just 1/2 game out of first place in the NL Central, with the 3rd best record in the NL. They have every reason to go for the division championship, with a Wild card berth as a consolation prize.

      Regarding Pedro vs. Clayton, as far as I can tell they’ve never actually faced each other. That will probably change if Kershaw pitches one of the 4 games the Dodgers play in Pittsburgh next month.

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  17. Pat says:

    What I’m wondering is if it actually counts as making the playoffs if you get bounced in the Wild Card Playoff. I mean, you will still have a winning season probably, but I don’t think that counts since you aren’t one of the four teams playing in a real series.

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  18. fergie348 says:

    I feel pretty strongly that the wild card play in games ought to be 3 game series and the regular season should be reduced to 160 games. When you play for half the year to get into the playoffs, it ought to be at least a real series. Having to play one additional series will definitely be a real disadvantage for the wild card teams and there should be a big incentive to win your division if possible.

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  19. 81 says:

    Probably should have waited a day before blaming the new CBA for the lack of trade deadline activity, no?

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  20. 81 says:

    I think we also have to consider the impact this may have in off-season trades. If the lack of draft pick compensation is deterring teams from acquiring players during the season, they could reasonably be expected to be more aggressive this winter. Just sayin’.

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  21. Mac says:

    I don’t know if this has been said but, with this new system it seems that it is more important to win your division. With that, the teams higher up seem more likely to buy rentals and giving up their prospects to the teams not in it. I would think that makes teams who are winning the divisions have worse farms, thus making it a little bit more balanced for the rest of the league.

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  22. Tim_the_Beaver says:

    I wonder if there is some way to quantify number/value of “high leverage games” being played. That is, games that have a big impact on % chance of participating in the playoffs. Seems to me that high leverage games has some correlation with dollars (if not just plain excitement), and that the current system will greatly increase the number of high leverage games being played toward the end of the season.

    Just thinking out loud, this probably won’t adequately capture the full effect, seeing as the wild card standings are already generating buzz and excitement, and the leverage of an individual game is probably still not much higher than it was at the same point last season.

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  23. David K says:

    Why does everyone automatically assume the play-in game will be played with each team’s best starting pitcher? I don’t think the rotations are set up to automatically work out that way.

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  24. Ryan S says:

    I’ll actually argue that ‘forcing’ teams to hold out on selling the farm due to the devaluation of the Wild Card is indeed a good thing. The first reason is that it helps smaller clubs that SHOULD be holding onto prospects actually do so by convincing them that it’s not in their best interest to take a shot at a wild card. Which in theory should bolster the competetive balance by helping keep the low end teams from becoming TOO low (You used the A’s and Orioles as examples).

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  25. Tymesup says:

    If there is more demand for players because of the new playoff format, then the price for players will go up. If the price for players goes up, some teams may decide it’s better to be sellers.

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